Health authority warned against negotiating directly with employees

Discussion of wage repayments before settlement with union could upset labour relations balance, board says

The Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board has ordered a group of regional health authorities and employers to stop negotiating directly with employees until a dispute with its unions over the collection of wage overpayments has been settled.

The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union, Canadian Union of Public Employees and three branches of the Service Employees International Union filed a complaint with the board when the province’s various health employers, organized under the umbrella of the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO), bypassed the union in negotiating the collection of wage overpayments from its employees. The union claimed the employers were attempting to unilaterally change the terms of employment and asked the board to issue an order to stop the members of SAHO from negotiating directly with employees until the matter was resolved.

The wage overpayments originated from a joint job evaluation (JJE) process developed by SAHO and the union in 1999, which was intended to standardize job classifications in the provincial health care system. The JJE was implemented in 2002 and a new wage structure came into effect in 2004. In June 2005, the employers began trying to reclaim what they considered wage overpayments of those positions whose salaries were decreased in the new wage structure. They began meeting with affected employees to calculate the amount owing and how to pay it back, which they proposed could be through wage deduction or withholding disability benefits.

The union immediately informed SAHO it should negotiate with them and not the employees directly. The union disputed the amounts of some of the overpayments and advised SAHO any withholding of wages or other discussion with employees was considered a direct negotiation and a failure to recognize their collective bargaining rights. The Labour Standards Branch of the provincial government also sent SAHO a letter indicating any wage deductions could potentially be against the law.

The employers stopped their talks with employees and reached an agreement with the union in January 2006 for a two per cent retroactive wage adjustment for 25,000 employees. However, SAHO advised the union in May 2006 its members intended to collect the full amount of JJE overpayments, which would offset some of the wage adjustments. It argued the original JJE agreement allowed them to do so and after consultation, the Labour Standards Branch agreed the overpayments could be recovered from employees. SAHO identified several methods to collect the money, including cash, cheques, automatic withdrawal or cashing in lieu and vacation time.

The union requested information on the amounts individual employees owed but SAHO refused, claiming consent of each employee was required. The union continued its opposition to the overpayment collection process and claimed SAHO refused to negotiate with them. SAHO took the position the process was negotiated with the JJE agreement and no further discussion was needed. In July 2006 a few of the employers began directly contacting employees to arrange the collection of overpayments. The union argued these were attempts “to make a contract directly with the employee” and contrary to the collective agreement.

The board noted the implementation agreement between SAHO and the unions allowed the employers to recover wage overpayments which were the result of errors in the JJE process. Working out the terms of the recovery with employees was not necessarily a process requiring collective bargaining.

“The employer was not negotiating terms and conditions of employment with employees,” the board said. “But, rather, reasonable terms of a repayment scheme for each employee and it was not mandatory that an employee meet with his or her employer.”

However, the board found the final decision in the case could have a significant impact on the balance of labour relations. If it was decided in SAHO’s favour, continuing negotiations with employees would not have presented a problem. Conversely, if the final outcome was in favour of the union, any negotiating SAHO’s members would have done up to that point could be damaging to the collective bargaining process.

With this in mind, the board ordered SAHO and its member employers to stop their efforts to collect wage overpayments from employees until a final decision in the case was reached, return any amounts already collected and inform the unions which employees had already made payments.

For more information see:

S.E.I.U., Locals 299, 333 & 336 v. Saskatchewan Assn. of Health Organizations, 2006 CarswellSask 838 (Sask. Lab. Rel. Bd.).

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